Himalaya by Michael Palin


I can give myself a pat for expanding the genre I read. Where once I only read romance, I have now expended to self-help, psychology, literature, and now travelogue.

My sister-in-law Wei borrowed this book to prepare for her trip to Nepal. She told me that Michael Palin is her favourite travel author, but she confessed to only reading the chapter on Nepal from this book.

I took over the book, wanting to read the chapter only on Bhutan, but the writing, witty and self-deprecating soon drew me to Nepal, India, Yunan (China), Nagaland and Assam, leaving out only Pakistan and Bangladesh.

The travel was done in 2003 when the author was 60 years old. The book was in conjunction to their travel as part of a BBC documentary travelling in the Himalaya. The journeys that I read were mostly done over land travel, either by vehicle or by hikes. What was so fascinating, and regretful as well, is that however interesting the travel was, I would never to go many of these places, where the latrine is almost subhuman (pg 146). The thing about travel and vacation is that, the best story comes from the worst travel experience, and that’s why this book is so interesting. Of course, being part of a BBC film crew also granted the author much privileges, like meeting the Dalai Lama and the King of Nepal and various important VIPs.

Like us, he visited a Tibetan Fortune Teller in Dharamrsala, a famous Chinese sinseh (physician) in Yunan and were told facts about himself that were better taken with a pinch of salt. Still, he obliging bought the herbs prescribed by the sinseh probably because he is world renown.

I like how he describes the gap between the poor residents in these part and the rich tourists (including himself):

In Dharmasala. An older man (beggar) with a stick simply stands there with a small pail, whimpering soundlessly. Passing these wraith-like figures are the substantial, muscular, Western backpackers who home in on these places, looking for cheap accommodation while sporting designer shades that would cost a street mender six months’ wages. Poverty is corrosive, but it’s always worse when it is found side by side with wealth. (Perhaps similar to my experience with the hill tribes in Sapa, Vietnam.)

In Assam as guest of tea plantation owner on colonial lifestyle. …I can feel myself slipping into it. The danger is that in faithfully and tastefully recreating the colonial lifestyle you recreate the colonial attitudes as well. There is no shortage of labour in India, and this, along with residual effects of the caste system and poor education, results in there being a lot of people happy to wait around and be told what to do. I look forward to my Scotch at sunset but I know that if I pour it myself, jobs might be at stake.

The interview he had with Dalai Lama was the highlight of the book for me. Having just attended Coursera’s Buddhism and Modern Psychology, it was interesting to read the Dalai Lama’s comment that Buddhism is far from being an irrelevant, unchanging religion. Buddhists and scientists have much in common, while in the field of psychology the Buddhists are well ahead. He grins. By 2000 years.

At the Everest base camp in Rongbuk, he describes his first night sleeping at such high altitude. As soon as I drifted off to sleep my breathing slowed and within moments I was wide awake, gasping for breath. Guess I won’t be going there as well, the same location as the subhuman latrine.

His description of Tibet is almost tragic, where the Chinese invasion of language, culture and architecture have turned the city into another Chinese city. He described the yet-to-be built high-speed rail connecting Lhasa and Qinghai. He says, it’s a fair bet that farmers and nomads, who made up 80% of the indigenous people of the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR), will find this less useful than the millions living in overcrowded conditions in the heart of China, for whom it will offer the chance of a new life, out west. I think like me, he is a Tibet sympathizer.

There was a sense of familiarity when I came to the chapter of Lijiang and Tiger Leaping Gorge, the only place that I have visited. In contrast, the Nagaland and Assam, may be the most remote to me. In the village of Longwa, one can stand with one leg in India and the other in Myanmar.

Wei was right. Michael Palin might just be my favourite Travel writer after readig



About vickychong

Just an ordinary woman.
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